Before the Lakers tipped off the regular season, head coach Frank Vogel was asked a pretty simple question: Does he think Anthony Davis has another level he can reach this year?
“I think so. Obviously he played at a pretty damn high level last year, but he’s a guy that is never satisfied,” Vogel said “(He) continues to work on getting better and growing his game.”
What form will that take for the Lakers? Well, Vogel has continued to push Davis to shoot more threes, even if four games in (Davis sat out one of the Laker’s five games) he’s shooting almost one less three per game (2.3) than he did last season (3.5), although granted it is still early on. And we know that Vogel likely does not mean Davis playing more of his most effective position (center) for the Lakers, because the team wants to see what Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell can do there, and save Davis’ body for the playoffs.
So what can Davis do to take his game up a level, and will he push that hard in the regular season? That remains to be seen, but so far he certainly isn’t forcing things. After scoring just 13 points in the Lakers’ loss to the Portland Trail Blazers earlier this week, Davis was critical of himself for not being aggressive enough, but he only took one more shot in the team’s next game against the San Antonio Spurs, although he was still much more effective in that one. He’s also averaging 2.7 fewer shots per game this season than he did last year, although again, he’s only played in four games, so the sample size is small so far.
But with all that context, it does seem clear that there is one area where Davis seems to be trying to ratchet up his effectiveness, and it’s a spot he had success with in the playoffs last season:
Most of these aren't like catch and shoot or open jumpers. It's him just creating a shot off of isolation like this: pic.twitter.com/yh37zoFtV6— UnwrittenRules (@UnwrittenRul3s) January 1, 2021
Or this. His footwork is so much better now than it was last year. Watch him raise here mid "jab-step" and still lands on balance. pic.twitter.com/R1B5UK1W1s— UnwrittenRules (@UnwrittenRul3s) January 1, 2021
For context, Davis took 17 shots from mid-range through the first four games last year (3.5 per game), so while the sample is small, it does seem to be an area he’s placing a greater emphasis on so far. And while the mid-range game is something that has become en vogue to criticize, as the Lakers saw in the playoffs last year, when defenses lock in, it’s often a necessary bailout option.
This is all part of the work ethic Vogel references, and something I’ve been thinking about for a while. There are a lot of people that say the regular season doesn’t matter, and if one views it from the perspective of the basketball not being the same caliber as it is in the playoffs, that’s certainly a conclusion that could be reached. But that would be like hearing “Avengers: Endgame” is the best film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — whether you agree or not, just stick with me — and then skipping all the other movies in the anthology to only watch that one. So much of what made “Endgame” great, the process of getting to know those characters so that even ones with smaller roles could have an emotionally impactful arc, wouldn’t be the same for someone who skipped all of the their solo and team-up movies that served as the lead-up.
The same goes for regular season basketball. It’s not as bombastic as the playoffs, certainly, and there aren’t the sheer volume of insane and unforgettable moments, but it’s also not skippable. The regular season is where one can see the arc of a players’ season begin to take shape. Last year, Davis’ success on post-ups in the playoffs was obvious, but one can’t have as much of an appreciation for his effectiveness there if they didn’t see the Lakers force-feed him possessions in the post all season to get him live, game reps to improve, as well as to have film of and make adjustments based on so that he could make the countermoves he used to destroy defenses in the playoffs.
The same likely goes for his increased mid-range attempts this year. While they have the added benefit of preserving his body, they’re also part of the game within the game: They’re not settling, they’re preparing Davis to have to make the more difficult attempts when such shots are the only thing available. Watching Davis learn from LeBron James that the regular season can be used as a lab to work on little granular elements of his game for the postseason has made me view regular season basketball differently, and appreciate the postseason even more as a result.
And Vogel has seen all that up close, and knows that Davis is one of the game’s true workers, leaving no stone unturned in the pursuit of the best version of himself.
“I think a second year in the system with the core and what we established last year should benefit him, but he’s always going to want to continue to improve his game,” Vogel said.
Davis did so last year, and at just 27 years old, there is no reason to doubt he can do so again.